Northern Ireland woman who bought abortion pills challenges prosecution

By agency reporter
November 6, 2018

A mother who bought her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online will appear in court  on6 November 2018 to challenge a decision by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to prosecute her.

The ground-breaking case will focus attention on the criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. It is the first-time the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has been challenged on a decision relating to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law. The first hearing of the case will take place over two days (6-7 November).

The mother faces two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol with intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. If her challenge is unsuccessful, the mother faces a criminal trial and up to five years in prison.

Amnesty is an intervenor in the case and has been working closely with the mother and legal team to contest the prosecution, which Amnesty believes is a breach of both the mother’s and daughter’s rights.

A Belfast judge who granted leave for the judicial review said the case raises “issues of considerable public importance and public debate”.

The mother told Amnesty that she has been put through “five years of agony” and explained how “painful” it has been to have the prosecution hanging over her head “every single day of my life, and I try for the sake of my family to keep my head above water”.

She continued: “[The prosecution and looming judgment] is there at every important moment of my and my children’s lives – just hanging over me. The fear and pain of it all. I feel like I am not allowed to move on."

She also explained how she has been “struggling with anxiety and the only place I feel safe and I can speak is in work because it’s anonymous and I have a distraction”, and that she has lost all trust in doctors and no longer uses their services since it was her GP who told the police about the case.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said:  “This case is the first ever direct challenge to a prosecution under Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law.

“All this mother has done is help her daughter access abortion pills that are prescribed free on the NHS in every other part of the UK.  This is an obvious and cruel injustice. This woman has done nothing wrong and yet our laws treat her as a criminal. It’s unacceptable that she has had to suffer and endure five distressing years of legal battles and a fight against a prison sentence.

“We hope the judges consider this case and its implications very carefully, and listen to the women, politicians, medical practitioners and lawyers who are all calling for an end to this cruel and outdated law.

“The UK Government has the power to change this situation now, they could decriminalise abortion and send a clear message that abortion is a matter for women and their doctors, not police and judges."

Jemma Conlon, the mother’s lawyer, said: “This is an important day for my client. At the centre of this case is a loving mother and daughter who, over the past five years, have had to repeatedly endure and relive a private and distressing time in their lives.  If we’re successful in our challenge to the prosecution, this will contribute to the dismantling of a law that for so long has been used as a weapon against women and girls’ rights."

Background to the case

A woman – who cannot be named to ensure her daughter’s anonymity – is accused of two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying abortion pills in 2013.

The charges are that she:

  • “unlawfully procured a poison or other noxious thing, namely mifepristone and misoprostal, knowing that the same was intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure a miscarriage of the second applicant”.
  • “unlawfully supplied a poison or other noxious thing, namely mifepristone and misoprostal, knowing that the same was intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure a miscarriage of the second applicant”.

At the time, the woman's daughter was in a physically and mentally abusive relationship. When she became pregnant, she sought her mother’s support and assistance to have an abortion, having decided she did not want to continue with the pregnancy. When the pregnancy was terminated, they went to their GP seeking counselling services to deal with issues around the relationship. During the appointment, they disclosed the use of the pills. After being referred for counselling services, the mother was later interviewed by the PSNI without a solicitor present. The mother was almost nine months pregnant and gave birth less than two weeks later. The PSNI gave the file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) who then deemed it in the ‘public interest’ to prosecute the mother.

The law in Northern Ireland dates back to 1861 and makes abortion illegal in almost every circumstance. An estimated 1,000 women travel every year to other parts of the UK for abortion services and many others go online to buy abortion pills.

* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

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